What I gleaned about the story: A very young girl gifted with uncanny knowledge and erratic behavior is about to become the only hope for a small band of city folks stranded in the woods during Armageddon. (But I’m really building windmills here.)
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Analysis: Makes you think big brother’s doing just fine, so why isn’t little sister, right? Except, further down that page, we find out that Bobby is dead. What? But she just said he had no problems. Is he a zombie or something? A zombie who’s doing well in school? Scanning back… Oh. Another case of missing past perfect. That should have read: Bobby, her first child, had had no problem…
Analysis: Want to win me over as a reader? When you get to the part where you need to tell me about the echoing, cavernous sense of loss that accompanies memories of your dead child, tell me in a way that affects me. Reach inside my soul with your words and plant an image there that forces me to feel the experience for myself. The hopelessness. The guilt. The crushing alone-ness.
Karen’s heart caught as they passed the senior elementary school where Bobby would be going if he were still alive. Pain squeezed her chest like a vise.
This is exactly the point in the story where powerful writing can win over the reader. But when you allow yourself to fall back on a familiar phrase like that, it completely clubs the opportunity over the head and drags it into an alley.
Or imagine a woman who has had her soul puréed, still scrambling to get out from under that tragic loss – and the ensuing divorce – while also desperate to make a good life for her remaining child. Imagine that she has finally managed to find work and that it’s bringing in enough to let her provide food and a roof, but not much more. Imagine her immense pride at finally being able to do even that little, but know that her pride is at war with her shame over not being able to provide more. Imagine her dread certainty that this disadvantaged home life is the root cause of her daughter’s strange behavior and problems at school. Imagine her looking with lingering rage at the larger, better kept homes in her neighborhood as she drives her clunker car home at the end of another trying day. Then pack all of that into a few well chosen words and disembowel me with them as she gets out of the car.
At that point in the story we get: The house wasn’t much, but it was home.
I don’t mean that every moment of every novel needs to be crammed with poetic brilliance, but one of the reasons we read stories is to get a new take on the human experience. Some new way of looking at a situation, or some original expression of how it feels. The job of a writer, I think, is to do more than simply concoct a sequence of dramatic events and express them without grammatical error. It’s to tell it your way, with your words. That’s what makes it engaging. That’s what makes it real. It’s you reaching out to me, and in the moment I read your words, we connect. Like electricity.
But when you reach for the stock phrase, all that power dissipates. It grounds out into the vast, generic anonymity of the collected masses. It stops being you telling your specific story, and becomes the everyman relating the average experience. And I don’t need that. I already know the clichés. Tell me something new.
Note: If you’re not sure whether a line is a bit too commonplace, try this: type the key part of the phrase into Google (in quotes) and see how many hits you get. As an experiment, I Googled “wasn’t much, but it was home.” (Doing it this way accounts for all the different house-nouns for which that sentence-template might have been used: a house, a trailer, an apartment, a castle, etc.) Google tells me there were 710,000 occurrences. Similarly, if we search for “squeezed her chest like a vise,” we only get 5 hits. But when I use “his” instead of “her” I got 15,000. And that’s a sign that you might dig deeper and try something of your own.
Analysis: All this best-friending is making me dizzy. Which “her” is indicated? Karen? But we already said that, up above. Then I see: The affection between the two was evident, yet Karen felt no jealousy. So from that, I now know she meant that Maria had become Roxy’s best friend. The pronoun was technically used correctly here. (Since Maria didn’t likely become her own best friend, the “her” will devolve to the next most recent female cited: the daughter, Roxy.) So it wasn’t technically a case of a miscast pronoun, but it’s always dicey to rely on them in a scene that has multiple characters of the same sex. This particular case was further confounded by the fact that we had only just been told about a different BFF relationship. And since this was the second or third case of pronoun confusion I’d seen, this one was enough of a head-scratcher for me to stop the clock.